Sunday, September 23, 2012

The new Sony Handycam series is a mixed bag

Just yesterday, I bought a Sony Handycam for official and personal use. Sony has unfortunately followed a strategy of increasing price while reducing the functionality and build quality. 

For example, they have done away with Hard Drives altogether in the lower end models - the minimum you need to pay for an HD is Rs. 44,000 for the HDR-XR260VE. The older and cheaper hard drive models which costed within Rs. 30,0000 like the HDR 160 series have been discontinued and are no longer found in the market.

I also found the LCD touch panel to be smaller, less easy to operate even with my (small!) fingers and the large touch buttons that surrounded the LCD touch panel have disappeared.

I don't find a built in projector to be a useful feature in a handycam - unless you are displaying home video to a home audience, you would always check and edit video clips before playback to an audience. However, it would be a great feature in a digicam since people are always dying to show their photos to each other.

I would have appreciated a wi-fi or bluetooth transfer capability to PC since this remains the biggest pain point with heavy media data. Even cooler if this could happen during shooting itself as I do not have to worry about the card getting full.

However, the handycam does well with what its supposed to - it does a good job of shooting amateur video at reasonably high quality. I have been familiar with the operation of Sony Handycams for years and this one does not alter the basic functions and makes the entire process simple and intuitive. Unlike the process of image capture, video capture should not require prolonged adjustment of settings. It needs a 'set it, forget it' approach so that you can be part of whats happening.

However, I ran into a bit of a problem with the HD video format used by Sony - AVCHD. All the latest Sony cameras advertise this format which is a good balance of HD quality with file size. The problem is, it is not compatible with most media players we use normally - notably VLC and Windows media player. 

When I tried to playback the HD files on my PC, they played in Windows Media Player/ Movie maker without any audio. In VLC, I got audio but the frame rate was off - there was a jitter or shadow effect. Fiddling with the settings did not solve the problem. Ironically, the same HD files look gorgeous when you put a straight HDMI output into an LED television.

I finally found a solution through online forums - a free HD player called Splash Lite which plays the AVCHD format natively and without need for additional codecs. Unfortunately like most HD players, you need to pay for a full-functioned version. There is no point in playback of video without editing capability. More importantly, without a popular and standard player to support playback, you cannot share video with others.

I have defaulted to Standard Definition video. This also does not look bad but I miss the sharpness of detail that HD brought. It's not as if I save a lot of space or battery by doing this - HD video offers many more options for long play and seems to occupy roughly the same amount of space.

Hopefully, if we wait for sometime, the format will gain popularity and be natively supported by more media players. Weighed against this is the fact that Sony has had mixed success in gaining mass support for the formats they have introduced in the past. In particular one recalls 'beta PAL' and the ATRAC audio format. Despite the facts that they were attempts to provide a better end quality, they were killed by lack of compatibility and support from other platforms. 

Step outside the safe world of DivX/AVI/MPEG and the video world is  a confusing mix of formats where terms like codec, filter and container are discussed seriously by pros, while amateurs are only trying to figure how they can get trouble-free playback. The bad news is  that you cannot, without spending time and effort to understand. Why can't all manufacturers agree on a common and universal standard like MP3 for music or JPG for images?